Sunday, September 18, 2016

Intersting times

Timothy 2:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 

2 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

5 For there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
6     who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time.  


The first text message came at 9:23 Friday evening.  "There was a drive-by at the high school.”   Within minutes my neighborhood was filled with the sounds of sirens rushing to and fro.  A helicopter was circling over head.   Before long my phone was blowing up with text and Facebook messages. There were rumors.  “The coroner’s van is there!” one person said.  “This used to be a nice town,” someone else said. “I’m moving to Utah!” said another.    For those who don’t know - at the time of these wild rumors Selma Fire Department paramedics were on scene, but no coroner’s van.  No one was hit by any bullets.  Our Selma High School band kids and football players and fans and everyone from Coalinga High School are ok.  Upset, but ok.

At 7:35 Saturday evening an email came from Reuters News Service. “25 injured in an explosion in Chelsea District of Manhattan.”  That number has risen to 29.  A second bomb was found.  The NYPD is calling the bombing intentional.  People on Twitter are having no problem assigning blame.  “It’s the Muslims!” says one.  “Kick out all the illegals!” says another.   But the fact is, no group or individual has claimed responsibility and the NYPD hasn’t yet said anything about who might be responsible.

”May you live in interesting times.”  Everyone says this is an ancient Chinese curse, but as is fairly common with things that everyone says, there is no proof that any Chinese source, ancient or modern, exists for this saying.  It is, however, a potent curse.  It is one that seems to have attached itself to the poor young man in the image we’ve used today.  Very much like the character Joe Btflspk from the old Lil’ Abner cartoons, Wizzard Rincewind only has to step outside onto a quiet street to provoke a sudden invasion of barbarian hordes in the middle of downtown where ever he might be, even if the nearest barbarian horde is thousands of miles away.   Rincewind is a character in the Discworld series of books by British author Terry Pratchett, who imagined a world that was flat, and carried on the back of four elephants who are standing on the back of a giant tortoise swimming through space, and all the insane things that might occur on such a world where science doesn’t exist and logic isn’t terribly well respected.  

It’s kind of an odd curse, when you think about it.  Do we want to live in boring times?  In times when nothing ever changes, nothing new and exciting happens, no new ideas or new scientific breakthroughs or new inventions come into our lives.  I might get annoyed when my phone blows up with all kinds of data flowing in, but would I want to live in a time when nothing new or different ever happens?  Hardly any of us actually attract barbarian hordes, or find ourselves escaping from some insane accident on a living piece of luggage, or walking around with a storm cloud over our heads.  For most of us, unlike Wizzard Rincewind and Joe Btflspk, life is fairly mundane.  For most of us, life is a steady round of routine events broken up by occasional excitement.  

And when there are terrible things happening, what we get to witness is heroism.  We get to see and hear about the people who go above and beyond to help, to make positive changes, to reach out to the people who are affected by whatever the terrible thing is.   Sometimes we get to be the ones helping.  

We have all probably heard it said that this year, this particular election year, is more heated, more divisive,  more violent, and more nasty than any other election year in our  history.  That’s not, actually, a true statement.  From the time of the first elections in this country there have been horrible smear campaigns coming from both sides.  Some of us are old enough to remember when rumors of mental health issues leveled against one Presidential candidate led to his defeat.   Andrew Jackson’s wife was horribly vilified in the press, and when she died in his arms of a sudden heart attack just days before his inauguration, he blamed his opponent for hounding her to death.  Abraham Lincoln’s opponents were particularly vicious, not that it kept him from being elected.  We have all heard that candidates are told by their campaign managers that they have to go on the attack, because they will lose if they don’t.  We have all heard that nice guys finish last.   We may all have strong feelings for or against a particular candidate.  

And none of that matters, because we are told to pray for all of them, for all of those in high places.   We are told to pray in thanksgiving and supplication and intercession for all of our leaders, whether we like them or not.  Whether we agree with them or not.  Whether we think they are doing the best they can or not.  

It’s one of those pesky “Love your neighbor” things.  I know.  Annoying, isn’t it?  But that’s the difficulty we face in being Christian, in behaving like Christians.  We have to follow that pesky Love Commandment whether we want to or not. It is not a suggestion.  It is a commandment.  We have to love our neighbors, all of them. Not just the ones we like or agree with or find attractive in one way or another.  All of them.  

Interesting times, as we tend to think of them, are exactly the opposite of the hope expressed in 1st Timothy, which is “that we might live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity”  Not in violence.  Not in anger.  Not in heated accusations and arguments. Not in rumors and wild speculation. But in godliness and dignity.   

I think we can live that way during interesting times.  Even when we are surrounded by anger and violence and disagreements and rumors and wild speculations, we can be the voices of reason. We can be the calm, collected, loving people who step in to stop the violence, to bring peace into a situation.  We can be the ones who can be depended upon to keep our heads no matter what is going on around us.   I think that we, through our determination to live in such a way that Christ’s love pours out of us onto everyone we meet, can bring godliness and dignity into every situation we face.

“For there is one God;   there is also one mediator between God and humankind,  Christ Jesus, himself human,  6  who gave himself a ransom for all —this was attested at the right time. “   And we are his hands, and feet and mouth.  it is through our efforts, our prayers, our actions, that the world can truly be saved.

It won’t be easy, but we have a secret weapon. We have something stronger and more powerful than wealth or weaponry or anger or even armies.  We have the power of prayer.  If we pray for peace, our hearts will know peace.  If our hearts know peace, we will project peace.  If we lift up prayers of gratitude for everything we have, gratitude will guide our living.  If we pray prayers of thanksgiving, even for the things we do not especially like in our lives, our thanksgiving will bring blessings, not just to us, but to everyone around us.    

We are living in interesting times.   May our prayers and supplications, may our words of thanksgiving and praise, may our desire to love and care for all of our neighbors, fill the world with the love of Christ.  Let us pray continually for our leaders, for all of them, lifting our voices in thanksgiving and supplication and intercession, that they might also know the Lord’s peace in their hearts, so that we might all live in godliness and dignity, in Christ’s name.  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

You say that like it's a bad thing.

 Luke 15:1-10   (NRSV)

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  And Jesus was all, “You say that like its a bad thing!  Here are a couple of stories for you to ponder.”  And he told them the stories that we know so very well.  If you look up at the stained glass window to my right you will see one of those stories illustrated . . . Jesus returning to the flock with a sheep slung over his shoulder.  

One sheep - a ewe, perhaps, who could be counted on for one or two lambs every year, and wool every season, and meat at the end of her useful life.  City folks might not get this story perfectly, but this is a farming community - y’all know what I’m talking about!   One lost sheep is something you can just shrug your shoulders over, you know?  No, you leave the rest of the flock together and go looking for that one.  The flock will be safe. They’re all together, they’re probably in a sheltered place and maybe there’s a dog to keep watch over them in your absence.   But that one, alone and frightened, that is the one Jesus is seeking.

The other story is nearly as popular as the story of the lost sheep - a woman and a coin.  This story has inspired nearly as much art, and even the song we heard the choir perform for us this morning.  I had to go to Google and Wikipedia to figure out just what the woman had lost, though.  When I first heard this story as a child, I thought maybe the coin was a silver dollar, and even though a silver dollar was a lot of money to me as a child, and even though dollars went a lot further then than now, still, it was a dollar. I didn’t understand the significance.  But when you realize that 10 silver coins at that time were about two months wages, losing one of those coins is a seriously big deal.  Which of us could lose a little over a week’s pay and NOT go looking for it in every nook and cranny of the house?  We’re talking the car payment here, or the rent, or groceries for the month.   And when the lost is found, there is much rejoicing.   

There was a fundraising idea going around on Facebook last week, sort of a backwards auction.  People are invited to give however much money they like not to hear a particular hymn for an entire year!  Say you are sick to death of “Siyahamba.”   Just write a check, and the worship leaders will delete it from their repertoire for the entire year!  Of course, we all laughed and said, “Oh we should totally do this!”   Not.  Maybe?  Anyway . . .that led to a discussion about favorite hymns. Because I know how tired one can get of hearing and singing the same six hymns over and over,  I am very careful not to ask for my very favorite hymn more often than maybe once a year.  I am so careful that no one really knows what it is.  Mind you, there are quite a few hymns that I really love.  Holy Wisdom.  Be Thou My Vision.  Joyful, Joyful.  Anything sung to the tune “Finlandia.”  But my favorite hymn, the one closest to my heart, is Amazing Grace.  When I first got clean and sober and started to learn about a loving, forgiving God who wants only the best for me and for all God’s children, I was so amazed at what God had done for me that I couldn’t stop singing that song.  It said everything I was feeling.  I was lost, but now I’m found.  God’s grace brought me through many dangers, toils and snares - but I hadn’t known it.  I had been blind, but now I could see that it was God acting in my life.    I was the coin, the sheep, the prodigal child, and God had welcomed me home, celebrated when I returned, embraced me and assured me I was loved.  And because of who I was, it’s important to me that I spend time with people like me, people who might not yet understand God’s loving care and forgiveness.  I spend time with them, and do my best to preach without words.  Or as that other popular Facebook meme says, I tell them I‘m Christian and then try not to act like a jerk.  

No where does the Bible tell us we have to spend all our time around Good Christian Folks.  A lot of churches say that, but Jesus didn’t.  I even had someone tell me that if I listened to any music other than what is played on the Christian radio station, I wasn’t really Christian.  He totally freaked out when he found out I was studying non-Christian religions at Chapman!  Mind you, I love spending time with my church family.   I love CWF circle meetings and hanging out with the Young Adults and running into any of you at Save Mart.  I love the retreats and assemblies and reunions.  I don’t love committee meetings  . . .  But I don’t know many people who do love committee meetings.    It is quite clear that the self proclaimed good church folks of his time, the Pharisees and Sadducees and Scribes, were seriously bent out of shape that he spent so much time with people who were not good church folks, people who were significantly sinful, so much so that they weren’t allowed to participate in Temple worship.  They weren’t even allowed to sit down and eat with devout, Law following folks.   

A word about the Pharisees.   Please understand that not all of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes were “bad guys” or in opposition to Jesus.  In fact, there were two schools of thought among the Pharisees.  One school taught and believed that the letter of the Law was the important thing, and must be followed rigidly.  The other school taught and believed that the important thing was the intent of the Law, pretty much exactly what Jesus was teaching.  So not all of them were coming to hear Jesus and argue with him.  Not all of them thought he was blasphemous.  Some totally agreed with him.  But the noisy ones got all the attention.  This is important to remember.  It’s why the Sanhedrin was called to judge him in the middle of the night, so only those in opposition to Jesus’ message would be present because they had been forewarned that this was coming.  

Likewise, there is sometimes a misunderstanding about the way the word “righteous” is used.  We may have been taught to hear it as “self-righteous.”  But when Jesus said, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” what he was saying is that those who were already doing God’s will in the world, the ordinary good people who did what God desired, didn’t need to hear his message - they were already doing what they were supposed to do. Jesus didn’t come to save the ones who were already living rightly.  He was after the ones who had strayed…not just the prostitutes and tax collectors, but also those who had strayed too far in the other direction, the super-vigilant hyper-religious folks who forgot what the Law was intended to do.  Jesus didn’t hang around with the good, ordinary folks who went to hear the rabbis teach and tithed and helped the poor and did what they could to do God’s will in the world.  They were that flock of sheep, safe in the enclosure.  They didn’t need him.  Jesus went out looking for the lost sheep.  He hung out where he was needed.  

Jesus performed miracles for non-believers, like the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter was so ill, and even for the oppressor of his people, the Roman Centurion whose servant was dying.  His only concern was to show the love of God in every way he could to every person he could.  It’s what we are called to do.  And while I know it’s more comfortable to spend time with people like ourselves, people who share our beliefs and standards, that’s not what Jesus called us to do.  Jesus never told his followers to stay and just hang out with each other.  No, Jesus kept sending his folks out among the sinners and Gentiles and Samaritans and Romans.  They were, we are, his flock, but we are also shepherds, and we’re supposed to go find those lost sheep.  We are seekers after the lost, not merely welcomers standing ready if the lost happen to find their way here.  So when Janice drives to Oregon with a car full of dogs to be saved, and Alan goes to visit Jeremy in prison, and Pat makes friends with ladies who come into Twice is Nice, and Jennifer hands out food at the SMART Center, they are carrying the word of God to someone who needs to hear it.  Just by doing what they are doing, without saying anything.  And if by your example, your love, your care, your refusal to judge, your welcoming of every person who enters your life even for a minute, one person is brought to understand anything at all about God’s love, it is as if you have found that coin, or rescued that sheep.   

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Yeah.  That’s kind of the point.  Jesus welcomes all into his presence.  He goes out looking for the lost, the frightened, the lonely, the searching, the angry, the unloved and unlovable …. and invites them to come dine, to share in the love of God.   Let us go and do likewise.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Road Trip!

Luke 14:25-33    (NRSV)

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


At the beginning of my third year of seminary I was given the opportunity to preach in front of a real congregation for the first time.  By real congregation I mean not the members of one of my preaching classes, but the actual people who gathered on Sunday afternoons to attend worship at Robin Run Retirement Community in Indianapolis.  I was so excited! I had just begun serving as their student chaplain a few weeks earlier and I really wanted to make a good impression.  When I looked at my calendar I discovered that  particular Sunday was also National Grandparents Day.   I couldn’t imagine a better choice of Sunday.  Then I looked up the Gospel reading for that day.  My first sermon, to be preached on National Grandparents Day, would come from the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 14, beginning at verse 25.  Excitedly, I began to read the passage to myself.   “Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”   

Wait.  What?  Hate father and mother?  But it’s National Grandparent’s Day!  How on earth can I preach this to a room filled with grandparents?   Well, I did preach on this, and they were quite understanding, which makes sense when you consider that I was preaching to a room full of retired preachers, missionaries, and seminary professors.  The toughest part of the audience?  The preachers’ wives.  They’d had decades of experience critiquing their husbands’ sermons and they weren’t going to cut me any slack.   Oh, they were loving and kind, but I can tell you that I learned more from those preachers’ wives about preaching than I ever learned in a classroom!  

“Now large crowds were traveling with him.”  Jesus was a rock star!  He healed people, he cast out demons, he performed all kinds of miracles and wonders, he debated theology with the priests and legal experts, which was kind of fun to watch.  He preached these amazing sermons, telling great stories that resonated with the people, because he used examples they understood from their own daily lives - stories about fishing and farming and building, stories about interactions between the poor and the rich, and about how the actions of the powerful people impacted everyone else.  He told stories about what it means to be oppressed to the people who were themselves oppressed.  Everyone wanted to follow him!  At least, everyone wanted to be around for the next miracle, the next debate, the next feeding of the five thousand.  At the very least, they wanted to be able to tell their children that they had been there when Jesus did this and that and the other thing.   Those large crowds were like…first century Deadheads.  

Now Jesus knew this.  He knew that, like Deadheads who have been following the band faithfully since the 1970s, some of his followers were really dedicated to following him, no matter where he went or what happened. Others, not so much.  Oh, they’d come around for a while, as long as it didn’t interfere with real life.  But most of them would fade away at the first sign of trouble.  Jesus knew that following him, really following him, would require a lot more commitment than a tie dyed shirt and a concert ticket.   So he tries to explain exactly what it will take to follow his way.  

If you really want to follow me, Jesus says, that commitment has to come before everything else in your life.  Even your family!   Mind you, the 5th commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother,” so if Jesus is saying, “If you are serious about following me, you must ignore one of God’s commandments,” he is saying something designed to make everyone sit up and listen more closely.  And because that has to be hard to wrap one’s mind around, Jesus gives them a couple of other examples.   

What if you were building a house, and you didn’t first figure the costs of all the labor and materials you needed?  You wouldn’t be able to finish and everyone would laugh at you.  Or what if you were a king considering going to war?   Wouldn’t you pay close attention to the odds before heading into battle, and perhaps stay home if you would be heavily outnumbered? Maybe offer the other king some sort of treaty? Unless, of course, you were a Spartan king, but the Spartans always were a little bit different.  

Following Jesus wasn’t going to be easy.  Even beyond the difficulty of wandering away from home, leaving your job and family behind, walking from town to town with a bunch of people you don’t even know, trying to find folks in those towns who would either invite your for dinner or sell you food, having no shelter to sleep in . . . even beyond that, it was going to be a hard life.  Jesus was demanding a lot of his followers.  That they reject what everyone knows and look at life in a new way, a different way.  That they reach inside themselves, find their faults, ask God for forgiveness, and make amends to anyone they had injured.  That they treat even people they dislike, even people who may have injured them in the past, with loving care, as if they were sisters and brothers.  Jesus was going to ask them to go out into the world, to tell everyone they met the Good News of God’s love for all persons, of God’s desire that all humans treat one another as they themselves wish to be treated. Jesus was going to ask them to preach love and acceptance of all persons, even the enemy, even the non-believer, everybody.  And Jesus was going to ask them to go out with nothing, to give up all their possessions, and to preach against the world’s view that power, influence, and money were the important things.  This, alone, would be enough to get them in serious trouble with the authorities.  Jesus was trying to prepare them for something that was bigger and more enduring than a road trip.  He was trying to prepare them for a lifetime commitment.  He wanted them to think very carefully about what the costs of discipleship might be.  

It takes more than a tie dyed shirt and a concert ticket.  It takes more than showing up on Sunday morning, praying, and singing God’s praises.  It takes more than reading the Bible, and wearing a cross, and going to Christian events, and spending time with other Christians.  It even takes more than doing mission work.  All of those things are good.  We should do them.  But really following Jesus requires much more. It requires praying for direction in every situation, giving God control over my life, being willing to go where God says to go, and to serve whomever God says to serve in what ever way he says to serve them.  Being a Christian means bringing the love of Christ into every situation, speaking and behaving in such a way at all times that people I meet see me as an example of loving kindness, whether or not they happen to know that I am a Christian.   For me, that’s the goal . . .  turning my entire life over to God, as Jesus did, so that everything I do reflects God’s love into the world.   I’m not perfect at it, but it is the goal toward which I strive.

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that when we follow Jesus, when we really follow him, when we make the decision to turn our lives and our wills over to being the people Jesus taught us to be, we are changed.  When we follow Jesus, really follow him, we are filled with love and care, and that love and care overflows and spills out upon everyone we meet.  Therefore, let us, each one of us, consecrate our lives to God today. Let us turn our will our and our lives over to God’s care. Let us submit ourselves to God’s direction. Let us give our hearts to God, so that we might be filled with love, and may that love be poured out on everyone we meet.   And thus let us change the world, one person at a time, until the kingdom of God on earth becomes reality.